Ministerial Statement on Findings of Committee of Inquiry (COI) on Little India Riot
- Madam Speaker, DPM Teo provided the Ministry of Home Affairs’ response to the findings and recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Little India Riot on 8 December 2013. I will now respond to the part that touches on the management of the foreign workforce in Singapore.
Cause of Riot
- I am glad that the COI has established that the underlying cause of the 8 Dec riot was not systemic dissatisfaction with employment and living conditions in Singapore among foreign workers. I think we can all agree that the process of inquiry was robust and the evidence and testimonials furnished to the COI by non-government organisations, civil society activists, and, more importantly, the foreign workers themselves, helped us see things in a proper perspective.
- The COI has also concluded that by and large, we have a good framework in place to protect foreign workers. This includes regular reviews to ensure that legislation is adequate and appropriate. Most Members would be aware that over the last few years, we have enacted a series of legislative changes to the Employment Act, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Employment Agencies Act to better protect workers.
- The COI’s findings have also been corroborated by the interim results of another survey conducted after the riot by an independent survey company Nexus Link, and commissioned by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC). Again, the results are consistent with the COI findings and showed that the vast majority of foreign workers (over 90%) expressed high levels of satisfaction with working in Singapore and planned to continue working here after their current employment stint. Over 80% said that they would recommend Singapore to their friends and relatives as a place for work. Satisfactory pay and working and living conditions were the top three reasons cited for recommending Singapore as a place to work.
- In addition to these survey findings, the fact is that over 70% of foreign workers renew their contracts after the first two years. Taken together, these pieces of evidence suggest that the majority of foreigners continue to consider Singapore an attractive place to work. Ultimately, what the foreign workers themselves say and do matters. The COI report puts to rest the more speculative causes for the riot that were offered by some critics, and that were echoed blindly by some sections of the foreign media. These same critics often propagated this, painting a negative picture of our agencies, of Singaporeans, and of Singapore at large to not only just our internal local audience, but to the international audience as well. Significantly, the Indian media, which had a more direct interest in this issue and more access to the workers, on the whole reported responsibly and fairly on the Little India riot. As the Foreign Minister has noted, this incident has not affected our bilateral relations with India.
- While the COI has found no evidence of systemic mistreatment of foreign workers, they have pointed out that there might nonetheless be a minority of errant employers who mistreat their workers. I’ve stated this before in this house: mistreatment does exist. In an earlier statement in Parliament I’ve also cited the number of egregious cases. While any case should not be tolerated, numbers are exceedingly small. My Ministry treats feedback on mistreatment of workers, whether local or foreign, very seriously, and will investigate such employers. If there is clear evidence that any employers or any other persons have breached the law, we will not hesitate to take the necessary enforcement action. I might add that workers who provide false information – and that occurs as well – must also be held accountable.
Accommodation and Recreation
- I accept fully the COI’s observation that “there is always room to improve the situation”. We certainly do not take the current state of affairs for granted, and will be implementing the thoughtful recommendations in the COI report.
- The COI has recommended that more services and amenities be made available to foreign workers outside of congregation areas such as Little India. This is something that we are already doing, and intend to step up on. Indeed, providing for the needs of foreign workers requires strong inter-agency coordination overseen by an inter-ministerial committee, covering issues like housing, transport and security. Efforts are on-going to speed up the construction of dormitories which, beyond providing adequate living space, have in-built amenities and recreational facilities to take care of the daily basic living needs of workers. The new dormitories which are being launched are required to be self-contained, with adequate space set aside for living and gathering, as well as the provision of facilities like mini-marts, gyms, canteens, TV rooms, and wifi. Over time, we aim for more workers to be accommodated in such self-contained housing facilities which will reduce their need to travel far for basic services.
- We also recognise that this is not simply an issue of providing hard infrastructure. Soft infrastructure matters and operators of dormitories have a role to play. As I have previously mentioned, MOM will be establishing a regulatory framework for large dormitories that have a larger impact on their surrounding communities. I am pleased to note that from our engagements with industry, the operators are on board with us on this. My Ministry is working through the details and will provide more information of this regulatory framework in the coming months.
- The government is also pressing on with our efforts to establish more dedicated recreation centres for foreign workers. There are four today – in Soon Lee, Kaki Bukit, Woodlands and Penjuru. We will increase their number in tandem with the increase in our foreign workforce numbers. These centres provide a wider range of amenities that individual dormitories may not be able to, such as remittance and banking services, supermarkets and sports facilities. We will work closely with local community stakeholders in shaping the amenities and services available at these centres so that workers do not need to go far to get access to these services.
- The COI has also suggested that more effort be made to educate foreign workers on issues such as their rights and protection, avenues for them to seek assistance, and local social norms.
- Currently, we already make an effort to push out essential information to workers before they enter Singapore and throughout their stay here.
- Information on key salary components is included in the In-Principle Approval letter which employers must send to their in-coming workers in their home countries in their own languages, before they depart for Singapore.
- As part of the work permit card issuance process, a comprehensive guidebook is given which covers workers’ legal rights and responsibilities, channels for assistance provided by government and non-government organisations, as well as social norms. Workers who have problems can always approach MOM for help at our Services Centre. Workers who approach us for assistance can be assured that due effort will be taken to safeguard their interests and well-being.
- During their stay, roadshows are conducted by government agencies at dormitories and key foreign worker gathering spots. Newsletters are also regularly distributed to keep workers updated on our latest initiatives or policy changes. Much of our engagement of foreign workers is conducted in the workers’ native languages.
- Nonetheless, we accept the suggestion by the COI, and will look into how our outreach to workers can be further improved. For example, we are looking to create more targeted and easy to understand materials so that key messages can be put across to foreign workers more simply. We will also look to extend our reach through collaboration with partners like student volunteers – many of who have expressed an interest in befriending foreign worker groups.
Managing Foreign Worker Numbers
- Even as we undertake to more effectively manage the foreign workers in our midst, the broader lesson is that growth in foreign worker numbers cannot go unabated. In line with the recommendations made by the Economic Strategies Committee in 2010, we have begun to moderate the growth of foreign workers to more sustainable levels, with a greater emphasis on productivity improvements. We have also taken deliberate and progressive steps to raise the quality profile of our foreign workforce and help businesses reduce their reliance on low-cost foreign labour. This is a painful but necessary adjustment we are making to restructure our economy towards, and the Government has introduced the $5.9 billion Quality Growth Programme in Budget 2013 to help our businesses and industries make this transition.
- The foreign workforce tightening measures have slowed down foreigner growth significantly. Excluding construction and domestic workers, FW growth rate was halved from 9.4% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2012, and halved again to just 2.3% in 2013. For construction, manpower has grown over the past few years to support the ramp up of construction projects, including essential transportation, housing and healthcare infrastructure for Singaporeans. We will continue to build in the coming years, but in a more manpower-lean manner, with many construction productivity measures being introduced.
- In conclusion, the COI has rightly pointed out that the riot was a unique event, perpetuated by individuals who were not representative of the majority of responsible and law-abiding foreign workers. The COI’s findings have made clear that negative generalisations about the foreign workforce have no place in our society.
- I believe that Singaporeans genuinely appreciate the contributions of these workers and wish to co-exist harmoniously with them. On our part, the government will continue to nurture and manage such shared spaces; as well as manage the overall numbers to minimise impact on local communities. Thank you.
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